My heart is not in science fiction. As a teen, I sated my appetite for escapism more in goblins and wizardry than in space marines and extraterrestrials. The only science fiction franchise I ever felt emotionally invested in was Star Wars. Even so, I have always appreciated the incredible value of science fiction at an intellectual level, because of its genres’ imaginative richness and depth (from space operas to commentaries on the journey of humanity, to utopian or dystopian visions of the distant future). Thanks to its diversity of genres and media (novels, comics, films, and so on), science fiction has exerted a significant and well deserved cross-cultural influence.
It is perhaps not surprising that Father Benanti of the Pontifical Academy for Life tried to explain how to imaginatively engage with science and technology via science fiction: “In an age marked by a secular culture in which religion has less power over pop culture, science fiction is the place where those myths that animate this culture reside. That is, science fiction narratives are those places where a sort of pseudo-religious thought finds a very fruitful environment and collects, orients and expresses desires, fears, hopes and expectations about the future of our generation.” (La Stampa)
The idea that there are religious themes, archetypes, and impulses embedded in science fiction is far from new, and some bodies of work are blatant about it—think, for instance, of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the duality of the light and dark sides of the Force in Star Wars. However, Father Benanti’s point is that even storytelling themes and components that are not specifically religious can point us to the great concerns of the communities consuming the fictional product. Take the example of 1997’s Starship Troopers as a terrific lampooning of the fascistic, individualistic war hero genre in American film and TV, or the anxieties around the perception of time, the relationship between past and future, and trust and enmity in the encounter with someone or something different in my personal favorite film, 2016’s Arrival.
Father Benanti suggests that in looking at these works of science fiction, we try to identify “the experience in the hearts of our contemporaries.” (La Stampa) In other words, much like other kinds of fiction, sci-fi articulates the anxieties and concerns of a particular culture in a particular era, with the added advantage of a setting or world deliberately projected into the future or on another planet, lending a narratively “prophetic” edge to the work. Science fiction has, therefore, often provided creative space to issue warnings about the future—from the rise of fascistic galactic empires to Ursula Le Guin’s (1929–2018) groundbreaking feminist sci-fi novels, which were able to project contemporary concerns into an imaginary setting and enrich discussions about the diverse visions of feminism that could be realized.
I propose recasting the term “science fiction” as quite literally the story of our collective life as humanity: science is an important theme in the wider context of the human “novel” that we have been “writing” together since the emergence of homo sapiens as a distinct species. The methodological apparatus of modern science and technological development may have only emerged relatively recently, but to me science has always been one branch of the wider umbrella discipline of philosophia: philosophy in its broadest, non-academic sense, the love of knowledge and the search for wisdom, the struggle to understand the world and how it works. Science has therefore been a companion of humanity as much as the insights (prajna) that revealed a presence beyond the material and led to religious expression.
Technological advancement has been an extraordinary leveler, a key component in the rise of a middle class since the Industrial Revolution. However, it has also severely accelerated problematic trends like economic and social inequality and environmental degradation. The complete dominance of mobile tech across the world has led to big questions about such companies’ roles in our private and intimate lives. The question is, therefore, which parts of scientific and technological development do we see as posing significant, existential threats and opportunities to the way we conceive of humanity and human dignity? And what kind of Buddhist response and action can be formulated in response to the answers that we feel concerned about?
As Budhistdoor Global and many other Buddhist publications have noted, the union of neuroscience and Buddhist meditation research has predisposed many Buddhist leaders, particularly in the rationalist, post-Christian West, to feel optimistic about technology and how it could not just advance quality of life and save the planet from environmental collapse, but even align Buddhism’s truth-claims even more closely to empirical data. However, rather than a friendly courtier conceding the answers of what we “should” do to the lab technicians and corporate researchers, Buddhism should behave more like a skeptical friend. Buddhist leaders should articulate clearly what “progress” and “advancement” means, and the role technology can feasibly and beneficially play in such a framing.
Much of science fiction consists of warnings or adulations about what is to come. Implicitly, we understand that the story is still being written. Keeping the lessons of our beloved works in mind, let us be authors with moral agency, and mindfully reach a future that is truly beneficial to sentient beings.